Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lapidary medicine

I saw an interesting talk last week (November 10) by a colleague where I teach.  Dr. Nichola Harris, a historian, discussed lapidary medicine - a topic on which she'll soon be publishing a book.  It was a great talk and I look forward to buying the book when it's out.

Lapidary medicine is using "stones" as either preventative or curative medicine. "Stones" can refer to a number of different things (it's not a scientific term) such as minerals, gemstones (typically, but not always, minerals), rocks, fossils, and even various types of organic material (coral, pearls, and amber, for example).

One thing she mentioned that I found interesting, and should have known if I had only thought about it, was that "crystal healing", so popular in New Age circles today, has nothing to do with lapidary medicine.  Lapidary medicine is really early pharamcology in Europe (coming from Greek and Roman times), while crystal healing is derived from Indian metaphysics and is intertwined with ideas about auras and chakras and such.

I wish crystal healing worked since, as a geologist, I am surrounded by crystals as I sit here typing in my office.  Maybe I just need to place them on my head, or perhaps sit on them to energize my root chakra (which would be uncomfortable, especially with the quartz clusters).

Anyway, while lapidary medicine did sometimes work and lead to home remedies still around today, it was often tied up with magical thinking as well (e.g. hematite, or iron oxide, is dark red so it's good for blood problems). 

One specific example she mentioned was calamine which is an obsolete mineral name found in lists of inventory in old apothecary shop records.  The name comes from a Belgian town (Kelmis) which had a zinc mine and was known by the French as "la Calamine".  Geologists don't use the term calamine anymore, it was really a mixture of two two attractive blue-green minerals - smithsonite (ZnCO3) and hemimorphite (Zn4Si2O7(OH)2 • H2O).

Both are ore minerals of zinc.  Now why would old apothecary shops carry this mineral?  Dr. Harris suggests that it was used for skin irritations - today we can go into drugstores and purchase a bottle of calamine lotion which has the active ingredient of zinc oxide (ZnO).  She didn't go into how those raw minerals were converted into something you'd want to spread on irritated smallpox sores, for example, but I would have to imagine it was powdered and then mixed with lard or some similar cream-like material.

She also mentioned pearl juleps.  People would drink powdered pearls.  She speculated this was for acid reflux since pearls are primarily made of calcium carbonate - the same active ingredient in Tums.
This I found a bit puzzling since pearls are typically much smaller than a typical 750 mg tablet of Tums (I have a bottle in my desk and looked) and most people would take 2 Tums for reflux.  In addition, Europe has plenty of chalk deposits - also calcium carbonate - which would have been much easier and cheaper to obtain.  Hell, ground up oyster shells would have been just as effective and easier to obtain.  I'm not sure why they would have used the less effective pearls (unless it was some sort of conspicuous consumption status symbol).

Anyway, I look forward to her book.

1 comment:

  1. why is artificial pearl not used in medicine /